Last fall, I quit a media job in New York. I’d been at it for years and was deeply burned out. So when I was offered a position that would allow me to travel, I gave notice—then proceeded to have sporadic panic attacks for two weeks. Did I ruin my career? I worried.
Panic is familiar to me. I see a therapist for my anxiety, and I do the research-backed remedies: yoga, running, you name it. But in the throes of on-edge feels, sometimes the only thing that helps me exists outside the realm of reason: tarot cards.
Of course, my loved ones said the same wise words. But when the cards “told” me, it felt more like I was coming to my own conclusions, giving myself that good advice.
My therapist thinks this is hilarious. “You write about health and science. Why tarot?” she asks. My explanation: During my two weeks of terror, I couldn’t bring myself to run and could barely eat. It wasn’t until I turned to my deck that I could function again. Seriously. The cards I pulled—a Nine of Swords and an Ace of Pentacles—roughly translated to: You’ve been given an opportunity you’ve been waiting for, and you’re reacting with melodrama and imagining the worst. Chill. Accept this gift.
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Of course, my loved ones said the same wise words. But when the cards “told” me, it felt more like I was coming to my own conclusions, giving myself that good advice. I could hear my rational brain through the panic. Turns out, even experts believe tarot can be a true self-care tool, if you’re open to it.
What is tarot, tho? Let me explain.
Many people associate tarot cards with fortune-telling, picturing an old woman in a robe or the Goth waitress from Now and Then. But really, it’s a simple way to reflect and tap into intuition, using an illustrative deck of cards. On a basic level, you draw one card (or several) and use the suit, symbols, characters, and imagery to suggest information or a story, then apply those lessons and conclusions to your own life. (An example: Pulling the High Priestess card, shown in photo above, which depicts a woman sitting with hands in lap, is generally interpreted to mean it’s time to reflect and trust your instinct in a situation.)
I first got into tarot by accident. I went through a phase when I was writing a lot of (really terrible) fiction, and one of my characters was a quixotic card reader. I picked up a copy of Rachel Pollack’s seminal Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom as research and was hooked by the end of the introduction. I went into it with the same misconceptions a lot of people have, like the idea that tarot is a silly carnival attraction. What I came to learn is that the cards can be a guide for self-exploration. When people ask me, “Well, don’t you just see what you want to see?” I reply, “Yes, that’s exactly the point!”
“Tarot illustrates the obstacles and triumphs of the human experience.”
There’s a good reason so many people identify with the images on their cards. (I say “so many people” because sales for tarot decks from U.S. Games Systems, a leading tarot deck publisher in the U.S., have doubled each year for the past five years—and revenue in the psychic services and astrology industry rose 1.6 percent per year between 2014 and 2019, to an estimated $2.2 billion.) “Tarot illustrates the obstacles and triumphs of the human experience,” explains Jessica Dore, LSW, a tarot practitioner and social worker. “They’re a tool that can get you to look within. It’s a reason to ask, “What’s going on with me?”
In modern life, it is harder than ever to ask yourself that question. We’re constantly buzzing from work to workout to social obligation, and every second in between we’re on our phones, scrolling and chatting. Carving out time to sit down, shuffle these cards, and then try to interpret, via their illustrations, whatever challenges you’re facing, is really just a way of forcing yourself to think about how you’re feeling. Assuming the cards resonate with you, this can be a healthy form of self-care, and yes, it may even help you manage actual conditions, says clinical psychologist Chloe Carmichael, PhD, a WH advisor.
“Some people with anxiety and depression can get really stuck in their heads, so any practice that stimulates thinking from a different perspective has the potential to be pretty helpful.”
In fact, be it Reiki or tarot cards or traditional religious practices like prayer, “spiritual connection is generally associated with greater well-being, and that’s even when you control for other factors,” Carmichael says. “If you think of tarot in the spiritual realm, and if those cards trigger you to reflect, it can be provocative in a good way.”
I think this mental connection to the divine is why tarot is particularly effective for me. It’s not just about how I feel personally; the images remind me I’m connected to a larger human story. “When we pull a tarot card, we feel seen,” Dore explains. It’s similar to asking for a sign from your higher power and getting one, or reading something (whether it’s religious material or even just an awesome book) that resonates with you deeply.
Wanna tell your own fortune? Give it a shot.
The great thing about tarot is you really can’t mess it up. Your practice is what you make of it, and your interpretations of the cards are just that: yours. To get started, all you have to do is find a deck you feel connected to, Dore says. Packs usually come with a basic interpretive booklet, too, so you can start there or buy a guidebook (see “Build Your Starter Kit,” below). Dore recommends pulling a single card once or twice a day and using a journal to write down your observations and feelings about what the cards mean to you. Your analyses of the cards are just as important as (if not more important than) the way more experienced readers view them. Try readings on yourself and your friends. With practice you will get better at leaning on your intuition, as I did.
“Tarot is about tuning in and learning about yourself.”
If you want to use the cards as a tool for managing symptoms of depression or anxiety, keep in mind one critical rule: “Spirituality is not a replacement for medical care,” as Carmichael says. Helpful as tarot might be for you, it’s essential to remember it’s not a cure on its own (you know this!).
It’s also key to recognize that using the cards for stress relief or as an aid to understanding your emotional landscape is very different from relying on them for major decisions. “If they’re eclipsing your sense of personal agency rather than mainly increasing your awareness, that’s what I would watch out for,” Carmichael says.
At the end of the day, “tarot is about tuning in and learning about yourself,” Dore says. And when you do that? That’s when the real magic happens.
- 1400s - Tarocchi, a game in which cards are dealt randomly and used to create poems, becomes popular in the noble courts of Italy.
- 1447 - The Visconti-Sforza, today the oldest surviving deck, is commissioned by two dukes of Milan.
- 1781 - Scholars theorize that the cards originated in Egypt and that the images contain wisdom.
- 1800s - Tarot takes on an occult flavor in Europe. Books on the topic (e.g., The Tarot of the Bohemians) help popularize the cards as divination tools.
- 1909 - William Rider & Son publishes the iconic “Rider-Waite” deck, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith under the direction of Arthur Edward Waite, a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn occult society.
This article appears in the May 2020 issue of Women’s Health, available April 21. Subscribe now.